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Jews who fled Nazis return for Vienna games

Having escaped the Holocaust as boys, two 80-year-old Jewish doctors from the United States have returned to Vienna to swim in the European Maccabi Games and have the last laugh at the Nazis who tormented their youth.

other Updated: Jul 12, 2011 23:48 IST

Having escaped the Holocaust as boys, two 80-year-old Jewish doctors from the United States have returned to Vienna to swim in the European Maccabi Games and have the last laugh at the Nazis who tormented their youth.

Competing at the Jewish version of the Olympics caps a life intertwined for John Benfield and Arthur Figur, boyhood friends who learned to swim in Vienna, fled when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, and became successful physicians in their adopted home.

"When I heard that the Maccabi Games were going to be in Vienna I said: 'This is right, this is something I need to do', and even though I'm not a very good swimmer...I need to show the Nazis that we're still around," Benfield said in an interview.

Benfield - who was born Hans Bienenfeld - and his lifelong friend Figur are among the nearly 2,000 Jewish athletes from 37 countries competing at the European Maccabi Games, which are held every four years.

The 2011 Vienna Games, which run until Wednesday, are the first since World War Two to be held on former Nazi territory.

"I see it in one way as a symbolic return to a country that would have annihilated me if I hadn't escaped," said Figur.

Benfield, a retired thoracic surgeon and lecturer from Los Angeles, recalled how the two friends almost did not get to come to the Games, where they are competing in the over-50 bracket. At first organisers said there would be no swimming facilities, then suggested he swim for the Austrian squad given his dual citizenship.

"I replied by saying well that's very nice of them but I'm alive because I'm an American and I want to swim on an American team," he said.